Changing face of a neighborhood

Whites flee radioactive cleanup site, replaced by Hispanics. And all say they were left in the dark about thorium problem that's plagued the area for decades.

In the 17 years since she moved to her West Chicago home and raised three children, no one told Olivia Reza that much of her neighborhood had been excavated to remove cancer-causing radioactive thorium.

"It worries us," Reza said in Spanish. "We wouldn't have moved here if we knew."

The same response is echoed by dozens of people living near the shuttered Kerr-McGee factory, many of whom these days are Latino.

They say no one explained that, during ongoing cleanups that began in the 1980s, the site has been used as a temporary holding facility for contaminated dirt.

No one told them that studies have shown elevated cancer rates in the area.

"We've never been told anything," said Cecilia Sandoval, who bought her house in the neighborhood two years ago. "No one said anything then, and they haven't said anything recently."

Since 1980, when residents first began lobbying for a thorium cleanup, whites have left the neighborhood in droves; slightly more than half as many people now live there. At the same time, though, the number of Latinos has almost doubled, a Daily Herald analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

The number of whites has dropped from 8,947 to 2,988. At the same time, the Hispanic population has increased from 1,661 to 2,969.

It's unclear whether Hispanics specifically were kept in the dark about the neighborhood's history. Some say it's simply a poor area to which low-income Hispanics have gravitated.

But white people, too, say they weren't informed about the neighborhood's past. And, an agreement among federal, state and city officials calls for non-disclosure of the thorium on deeds. That agreement was aimed at protecting property values from the stigma of a thorium label once the sites had been cleaned up.

Either way, Latinos are now clustered in one of the most toxic areas in West Chicago, an example of what some experts call classic environmental racism.

Full disclosure

Soon after her family bought their home in 2003 near the former Kerr-McGee plant, Maria Salazar commented to a neighbor on how nice her new backyard and porch looked.

"She said, 'Maria, don't you know?'" Salazar recalled. The neighbor told her that her entire yard and back porch had to be dug up to remove thorium.

Salazar called the agent who had sold her the home. "I said, 'Why didn't you tell me? Weren't you supposed to?' I was upset. I have small children," she recalled. "He said he didn't have to."

Daniel Bluthardt, director of the Illinois Division of Professional Regulation, which certifies Realtors, said agents do not have to disclose a property's history -- if it's been cleaned up.

"If the EPA were to declare that, on a particular piece of property, the problem was resolved, then it would not be (an agent's) duty to disclose the property's history," he said.

However, it also is agents' responsibility to check for EPA letters certifying the cleanup, Bluthardt said.

The federal EPA and city sought to further protect properties through a non-disclosure agreement, said Yolanda Bouchee, an EPA community involvement specialist, in an e-mail to the Daily Herald.

"U.S. EPA, the State of Illinois and the City of West Chicago insisted upon a residential cleanup standard that would not require institutional controls, e.g. deed notices or restrictions, upon the property in the Residential Areas Site," she wrote.

The policy ensures that clean properties don't have their reputations unfairly sullied by the thorium that was excavated and eventually shipped to Utah for disposal, Bouchee said.

Still, Salazar said she's never seen a federal letter or certificate that declares her property as clean.

And, even if she had that certificate, it may not mean the property is safe: the EPA recently acknowledged that residual buried thorium contamination may remain on up to 41 residential properties. Salazar's is one of them.

At their first public meeting on the subject last week, EPA representatives said properties that had been certified as clean were among the group.

The EPA and city didn't notify homeowners of the possibility until six months ago, even though they had known about it since 2002. If it does exist, the contamination would only prove a health risk if uncovered, according to the EPA.

A few years ago, Salazar's husband, Antonio, had to dig into the property to put in new windows. He got a city permit for the work, but no West Chicago representatives told Antonio he might want to take health precautions.

A city media representative said that West Chicago refers questions about the thorium contamination to the EPA.

Low-priced homes

The West Chicago situation fits a nationwide pattern in which minorities are far more likely than whites to live next to toxic sites, according to a study by the United Church of Christ published earlier this year.

"What is happening here is not unusual," said Bernie Kleina, executive director of Wheaton-based HOPE Fair Housing. "There are many neighborhoods in many cities where environmental hazards are not identified, especially when it's a minority neighborhood."

Local real estate agents counter that the neighborhood's demographics simply took their natural course.

"They are lower-priced homes, and the Hispanic community is in the lower income bracket, generally," said West Chicago real estate agent Tomas Aviles, who is Latino.

After all, he said, "it is the lowest-priced area in West Chicago."

Homes in the neighborhood now on the market are listed for about $180,000-$220,000.

At times, Latinos don't understand the situation when it is explained to them, Aviles said.

"They're coming from Mexico; they have no idea what radioactive material is," he said. "It takes quite a while to get them to understand."

The residents who formed the Thorium Action Group in the early 1980s faced a similar problem with older residents who saw Kerr-McGee as an institution, said DuPage County Board member Linda Kurzawa, a TAG member.

"Our goal was that nobody would be left with a tarnished property value," she said.

The group took aggressive steps to deal with ignorance, including door-to-door leafleting. Twenty years later, TAG hasn't employed the same methods because it believes the city, state and EPA have the situation under control.

"TAG is still there but not what I'd call an active organization," said Kurzawa, who moved from West Chicago to Winfield in 1987.

No one's talking

Still, Hispanics living in the neighborhood said they hadn't heard from the city about possible remaining contamination. Some of them received a letter from the EPA explaining the situation in English, with a line at the top in Spanish listing a number to call for translation. None of the dozens of Latino residents the Daily Herald spoke to said they called.

No concerned Latino residents have called city hall, either, said West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman. The city has a full-time Spanish-speaking information officer, along with handouts in Spanish available at City Hall on the thorium issue.

"The city's position is that all residents have to have a feeling of safety," Kwasman said. "I don't think it's revenant whether people are Latino or Anglo."

Indeed, there are white residents of the neighborhood who also say they weren't informed about their properties' histories.

"There was nothing in any closing or legal papers or anything," said Paul Dowdle, who moved from Elk Grove Village to the area a year ago to be closer to his job.

Dowdle's lawyer didn't see anything when he was closing on the property, either, Dowdle said. Only later did he find papers in the house that showed Kerr-McGee dug out nearly all of his yard and replaced the garage.

New neighborhood residents Jackie and George Green, who are white, said they also weren't notified about prior contamination. When they found out, they went to city hall.

"We could hardly get anyone to talk to us about it," said Jackie Green, a real estate agent herself.

Anyone, white or Latino, would understand the situation if it were explained properly, in a language and manner they understood, said HOPE's Kleina.

Officials should prioritize people's health above property values, said James C. Schwab, a senior research associate at the Chicago-based American Planning Association's Hazards Planning Research Center.

"It does seem like over time there is an effort by a knowledgeable group to get out, and a less knowledgeable group buying in to a situation that is not desirable," he said. "If you tell new homeowners, it allows them to satisfy themselves that the property is safe before making what is often the biggest purchase in their lives."

Homes are in close proximity to the former Kerr-McGee plant in West Chicago. A building on the site, at right in the background, still is used to store radioactive thorium from ongoing cleanup of a nearby creek. Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer
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